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When it comes to leadership, there’s a great divide between what women want and what’s on offer

Every 2 years the EOWA produces its Census of women in leadership.  The recognised benchmark for gender diversity in corporate Australia, the Census is the most quoted statistic in Australia relating to women in the workplace.

So let me ask… if you were to assess how well your company has performed in attracting and retaining women in leadership roles over the past 2 years, would you say things were getting better or worse?

Turns out results of the 2008 Census released today by EOWA show female representation has declined in every area of the survey except company chairs (which remained static at just 2% of all ASX200 companies – hardly cause for celebration!).  In case you haven’t seen the findings yet, get ready to be disappointed.  As at 1st February 2008:

  • Only 1 in 10 Executive Management positions were held by women (or 10.7%, compared with 12% in 2006)
  • 45.5% of companies had no women executive managers at all (39.5% reported in 2006)
  • Women held just 5.9% of all line positions identified (down from 7.4% reported in 2006)
  • 60.4% of women occupied support positions as opposed to line positions that ultimately lead to CEO or Board appointments, (compared with 24.7% of men in support positions)
  • 39.6% of women executive managers were in line positions compared with 75.3% of men
  • Women held 8.3% of Board Directorships (compared with 8.7% in 2006)
  • 51.0% of companies had no women directors (compared with 50.0% in 2006)
  • 11.5% of companies have 2 or more women directors in 2008 (compared with 13.5% in 2006)
  • Only 6.0% of companies have 25% or more women directors (compared with 12.0% in 2006)
  • Only 2% of companies have a female CEO (3% in 2006) and 2% (same as 2006) have a woman chair

This is more than disappointing; it’s simply ridiculous!  How can it be – in this day and age and with the plethora of diversity programs and women’s initiatives in place – that Australia’s top companies are still completely and utterly dominated by men (and middle-aged, white, Caucasian males at that).

The findings show Australia lags behind the UK, USA, Canada and South Africa in female representation in leadership.  Yet at the same time, women are graduating and being recruited at entry levels in greater proportions than ever.  This says to me that – despite the diversity committees and the policies – employers might be talking about change but they’re doing a lousy job at keeping women in their organisations and supporting them through the ranks.

Which leaves me wondering:  do the middle-aged, white, Caucasian leaders of our top companies even know what women want, when it comes to their careers and employment choices?  When they implement diversity programs and programs for women, do they ever ask the women what it is that would make a difference and keep them engaged within the organisation?

I mean, if they did, surely they’d get some ideas on how to bridge the divide between the number of men and women at the top.  But I reckon these blokes are clueless when it comes to understanding what drives and motivates the women in their workplace, and particularly highly capable, high potential women who are the perfect pipeline for leadership roles.  Whenever I speak at a women’s forum, I always meet women who tell me they feel undervalued, underutilised and overloaded with administrative and support type functions that consume all their energy and distract them from reaching their full potential.  Many women tell me this is why they leave an employer – yet it always seems to be news to their employer when they do leave.  And this impacts directly on the leadership pipeline.

Now before you state the obvious, I know that many women do need to take time out to produce babies and this has some impact on the talent pool, at least temporarily.  But certainly not to the extent of the gender gap in leadership.  The majority of educated women who enjoy the challenge of their careers want to return to work after bearing children (maybe not to the same employer: they often switch to someone or something that will give them more of what they want!)

This is backed up by the Generation F study commissioned by EOWA earlier this year that showed 14% of women planned to leave the workforce to raise families; while on the other hand, 20% had plans to leave and start their own businesses.

So what is it that self-employment offers to women that being on salary doesn’t?  Flexibility?  More ability to exercise their full potential, without the shackles of white male groupthink?  Less testosterone and less of the B.S. and bureaucracy that sees every out-of-the-box idea we put forward categorized as too different/risky/radical to consider in the corporate setting?

I know that many of you are in corporate roles, and I wonder what it is that you want from your career and your workplace, and whether your employer has ever asked you articulate what that is?  And whether they’ve actually delivered on your feedback of what it is you’re looking for; or whether your requests fall on deaf ears or worse still, end up on some action list that never actually gets actioned?

For the many of you that have your own businesses, I wonder what being self-employed has given you in terms of career satisfaction and opportunities that you paid employment didn’t deliver?  Probably not fewer hours, but there must be a variety of financial and non-financial rewards that keep you motivated in ways that corporates can’t offer.

I reckon your answers to these questions will make a difference to how women are represented in leadership ranks.  Because I believe it’s a given that women want to succeed just as much as men; but what they’re prepared to put up with or go without to achieve that success can and does influence the way they’re prepared to go about achieving it.

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